Sunday, June 28, 2020
watch it here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYvIxPDvUmg
“You cannot serve God and wealth” we hear Jesus say in Matthew 6 (v.24), as he confronts us. His disciples had followed him to a mountain top. In this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presents the extremes of discipleship, a calling out of the world. When we turn our eyes on him and set our hearts on following him, he then teaches the extent of what the call entails. Love your enemies. When attacked, turn the other cheek. Pray for those who persecute you. Shine your light, your faith, as a city on a hill, a beacon drawing the world to God.
Now as we come to the final teaching of this sermon, Jesus hits us with stark contrasts. Much like last week’s emphasis that we must choose God or money as our master, in this final portion, he offers overlapping metaphors of choosing this or that.
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (v.13-14). Jesus doesn’t try very hard to sell it. I once heard a therapist in session say to her struggling client with compassion in her voice, “How can we make your life easier?” It was as lovely an intro to therapy as I have ever heard. Who wouldn’t want life to be easier?
Then along comes Jesus. He’s not making it easy. To hear him, we have to climb a mountain. Then he tells us to take the hard road and enter through the narrow gate. I want the easy road. I want life to be comfortable, manageable, and stress-free. He doesn’t really promise any of that. He says, “Don’t worry.” But in the same talk he tells us to turn the other cheek and be ready for another blow. He tells us to depend on God, not money. And now, we are to intentionally step onto the hard road. Who does that?
We do because we trust Jesus and we need Jesus. But as we do, I offer a two-part warning. Don’t look over in order to keep track of who is on that easy road headed for the wide gate. We will drive ourselves crazy if we become envious of neighbors and friends who appear to disregard Jesus and at the same time live happier, easier, more prosperous lives. Don’t compare your life as a disciple to the lives of people around who aren’t following Jesus. First, if you pull back the curtain, you’ll surely find that they have deep pain you don’t know about. Second, if their money, trips, and stuff seem more fulfilling than the Jesus you know in your heart, your probably need to get to him better.
The other side of this warning against comparing our lives when we’ve chosen the hard road Jesus lays before us to the lives of people uninterested in Jesus is a warning against pseudo-martyr smugness. I say ‘pseudo-martyr’ because when we feel ourselves to be superior to people not with Jesus, we want everyone to see that we’ve taken the hard road. We want to be noticed for our devotion. Such an attitude corrupts our souls.
The closer we get to Jesus, the greater our joy. It’s a joy we want to share. We grow close to him through daily disciplines – prayer, Bible reading, quiet times. We grow close to him when we gather with other Christians, even virtually, and worship together. We grow close to him when we live in a way that forces us to trust him. Paradoxically, the weaker we become, the more we are filled with his strength. The more we share the hurt felt by poor, persecuted people, the more we feel his loving comfort in us. This kind of joy and love grows in us as we share it. As we help people see Jesus, we grow close to him, we feel him lift our burdens, and we find ourselves laughing with Heaven’s delight at every step we take on the hard road.
When we walk that road focused on Jesus, we don’t want to be anywhere else. When we unsteadily stumble along, constantly looking to the wide, easy roads on either side of us, we find it very hard to move at all.
Nick Wellenda has walked a tightrope across the Grand Canyon, between sky scrapers in Chicago, and across the Niagra Falls. With my fear of heights, I can’t imagine such feats. In one video, he’s wearing a camara, and we see the angle he sees as he glances toward his feet perilously stepping over a city street hundreds of meters below him. I got dizzy looking at the video and I was sitting in the comfort of my office. Wellenda says, “As I was walking along Niagra Falls, there was raging water all around me, mist rising up, and roaring, violent waters beneath me. But instead of focusing on the problems all around me, I focused on the end.” Then Wellenda says, “It’s similar to our walk with Christ. Not all things are easy, but with God all things are possible.”
We may not be suspended high above waters that would kills us, but we see perils all around. If our focus is on the problems, the stress, the temptations, and the pain, we’ll soon wander off the hard road bound for the narrow gate, and we’ll be away from the God we need so much. We need to attend to the traumas and distractions that would upend our lives, but we do this by keeping our focus on Jesus. In every life circumstance, we stay connect to Jesus, we grow in our relationship with Him, and depend on him more and more. To follow with our eyes constantly on him, is to stay on the disciple’s path, the hard road. It is to love the unlovable, help those who need it, and spread joy. And when we live that way, we discover, whether intentionally or unintentionally, we have helped others find their way to the narrow gate that leads to life in joyous relationship with God the Father.
It requires keeping our eyes on Jesus. Bonhoeffer says, “If we worry about the dangers that beset us, if we gaze at the road instead of him, … we are already astray.”[i] He goes on to point out that whereas in Matthew Jesus tells us to walk the hard way and enter by the narrow gate, in John, we hear Jesus tell us he himself is the gate (John 10), and he himself is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14).
Whether we are thinking about how to react to a global pandemic, or we are struggling with the politics of how our society responds to a pandemic, or we get into conflict with neighbors because their response or their politics are different than our own; in all these scenarios, we keep our eyes on Jesus and he gives joy even as we walk the hard road. Whether we are opposing racism, or fighting for justice for the poor and the oppressed and the left out, or we yearn for peace in the midst of a politically toxic presidential election cycle; in any of these conversations, we keep our eyes on Jesus and remember that he determines how we treat others and he tells us who we are! For the disciple, Jesus is in everything – every friendship, every ideology, every activity.
Besides the hard road v. easy road, Jesus offers other contrasts. Good trees – people who follow his teachings and strive to obey God, bear good fruit; fruit that embodies the mercy and compassion taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Bad trees – people that serve themselves at the expense of others; the greedy, the racist, the wealthy, the violent bear bad fruit. They advance themselves, but not God’s agenda.
In addition to likening the disciple life to roads, gates, and trees, he talks about the work of building. Those who obey Jesus by showing compassion, and giving grace and forgiveness build on solid foundation. They survive the storms of life. Those who disregard Jesus live on shifting sand. Life’s storms so upset these folks they forget who they are. Pandemics, violent protests, and presidential politics are storms that change souls not tethered to the rock. We build our lives on the rock, Jesus, and we are his, come what may.
This laser-like focus on Jesus does not mean we have turned our backs on the world; just the opposite. Next week, we’ll begin a two-part series from Matthew on Jesus’ mission mandate in which we are, in his name, sent into the world. We go with our eyes on him, determined to help others with their needs and to help them find their way to him.
The world is everyone who lives apart from God in this time before the end of history and final judgment.[ii] The world is the tower of Babel run amuck. The world believes all the lies that if you have enough stuff, if you get your adrenalin fix satisfied, if your team wins or you win, if you have a huge house, and your physical cravings are satiated, then you’ll be happy and happiness is the ultimate end.
When we follow Jesus, we offer the world a better story. Yes, our story involves hard roads and narrow gates, but on that hard road we discover joy that stays through rainy days. Jesus is with us right in the middle of the raging storm. We have as much happiness as the world can offer, but it is different, deeper, and lasting. It is not dependent on circumstance, and can even grow in the midst of turmoil because our Lord rises above the storm and bring us with Him.
Hear this better story, the Jesus story; learn it, choose it, tell it, live it. It is the road that leads to life and it stand open before us.
[i] D. Bonhoeffer (1963), The Cost of Discipleship, MacMillan Publishing Company (New York), p.212.
[ii] S. Hauerwas (2006), Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew, Brazos Press (Grand Rapids), p.87.